Army Secretary Louis Caldera, seeking new ways to attract young people into a recruit-starved military, is launching a program that could be a model for bringing Hispanic Americans into the economic mainstream--one of the key challenges for this country in the new century.

Caldera's idea grows out of a realization that the Pentagon could erase its recruiting shortfall by simply enlisting a representative share of Hispanic Americans into uniform. Currently Hispanics make up only about 7 percent of enlisted personnel but make up more than 14 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in this country. It's not that Latinos are reluctant to join. Surveys show they have a higher interest in enlisting than whites or blacks. It is simply that they cannot qualify.

With rare exceptions, the increasingly higher-tech military--the best-educated in our history--takes only high school graduates. But Hispanic high school students consistently have the highest dropout rate--30 percent nationally, 50 percent in some states, such as Texas. That eliminates them as prospective recruits for the Pentagon and, more important, as candidates for better civilian jobs than the low-skill, low-wage positions too many Hispanics hold.

Caldera's idea is to find the dropouts with the best potential--no history of criminality or drugs and good scores on aptitude tests--and have the Army pay them the cost of courses, materials and the exam to complete the General Educational Development certificate--the GED. In return for the Army's help with completing the high school equivalency program, young Hispanics--and white and black dropouts too--would pledge to enlist.

Caldera has had to overcome resistance to this idea in the Pentagon, where some military leaders see dropouts as quitters. Studies do in fact show that GED holders are less apt to complete a first enlistment than are high school graduates. But urged on by Hispanic leaders--including Reps. Ciro Rodriguez and Solomon P. Ortiz, both Texas Democrats and both dropouts themselves--Caldera has moved forward.

Ortiz, Rodriguez and others point out that Latino dropouts aren't always quitters. They often have good economic reasons for leaving school--to help support young families, pool rent money, and send money back to relatives in Mexico and Central America.

What Caldera, a former state lawmaker from Los Angeles, understands is that education is the key to success for Hispanics, not only in the military but also in civilian life. Forthcoming research by the Urban Institute shows that Hispanics are coming to dominate the low-wage work force. Indeed, median weekly earnings by Hispanics, although they have risen over time, have declined for the past 18 years relative to those of whites and blacks.

The difference in wages and poverty is explained entirely by the lower educational levels of Hispanics, the research shows. And the evidence suggests this success gap follows through the second and third generations of Hispanic Americans, mainly because they have lower college and high school completion rates.

Caldera is on to something with his GED program. A similar one for civilians could be invaluable. The first part could be a national and local advertising campaign--in English and Spanish, paid by state and federal governments and targeting Hispanic communities--to convince young Latinos that finishing high school is the first key to success. Second, private employers and government agencies could do more to pay for, or reimburse--as they do now for employees who take college courses--the cost of GED programs for their Hispanic workers who clean the halls at night, park their cars and cook their meals. These people are no less deserving of access to education than front office employees.

The Marine Corps, the only service that gets a representative share of young Hispanics, proves that national leadership and commitment can pull Hispanics into the mainstream. In part the Corps' success owes to its machismo image, but more important has been a sustained multiyear effort by Marine leaders, from the commandant on down to recruiters, to reach out to Hispanic communities with a message that a stint in uniform is a ticket up the ladder. A national "finish high school" campaign could meet with similar success.

The writer is a managing editor at National Journal.